Never Let Me Go

Kazuo Ishiguro
Never Let Me Go Cover

Kazuo Ishiguro - Never Let Me Go (2005)


"I keep thinking about this river somewhere, with the water moving really fast. And these two people in the water, trying to hold on to each other, holding on as hard as they can, but in the end it's just too much. The current's too strong. They've got to let go, drift apart. That's how I think it is with us. It's a shame, Kath, because we've loved each other all our lives. But in the end, we can't stay together forever."

The one thing that everybody knows about 'Never Let Me Go', that they're all clones created for the purpose of giving up their vital organs for medical treatments, isn't really a twist. So I don't feel bad for just spoiling it for you. Like all great SF, 'Never Let Me Go' uses its technological premise - in this case that human cloning was perfected shortly after World War II, and people have been raising clones in large numbers since then to provide back-up organs to normal people - to look at how it affects its characters. In this case our characters are Kathy H., Tommy and Ruth, three school friends who drifted apart as they got older. Only in this case, their nice public school is a rearing ground for expendable clones.Ishiguro's tone throughout is masterful. Kathy narrates the story of her and her friends' lives, as they go from school to becoming carers for clones undergoing surgery to going under the knives themselves, in a clear, conversational manner that is deceptively naive. The salient information is deftly parceled out; from the beginning the chilling euphemisms tip you off that something is wrong. The term 'donor' for clones giving up their organs so that other people can live is especially cruel, and tells you a lot about how people in this world view clones. At the end, when Kathy and Tommy find out that there is no escape from their fate of being butchered in their prime, they learn that their school Hailsham is notably more humane than the grim factories in which most clones are brought up.

More than any other book, 'Never Let Me Go' reminds me of 'The Giver' by Lois Lowry. Both books feature a seemingly idyllic society that the children protagonists eventually discover is run on other people's pain and exclusion. Ishiguro and Lowry both get good mileage out of showing a young person's trust in the adult world around them shattered by brutal revelations of the harshness of reality. 'Never Let Me Go' really brings out the unfairness of the clones' situation. It is a powerful metaphor for disenfranchised peoples growing up in a world set against them from the beginning. Anyone reading the book, sharing Kathy's hopes and dreams as she grows up, will of course see her as a person with a soul, but in much the same way as everyone watching TNG knows Data has a soul it needn't mean that everyone else within that fictional universe would automatically feel the same way. We discover at the end that the reason Hailsham pupils were encourage to produce art that was taken away if it was any good was so that the teachers and administrators of Hailsham could have proof to show the outside world that the clones growing up there did have souls. In a particularly cruel twist the headmistress of Hailsham even admits to her former pupils that she had to repress her repulsion at them every day in order to spend time with them.

But more than all of this, at its core 'Never Let Me Go' is a great love story. Kathy and Tommy are kept apart while they are growing up because their best friend Ruth is dating Tommy, but finally years later while Kathy is a carer and Tommy has already become a donor they are able to spend a short time together. The way Ishiguro slowly and subtly develops these two characters' feelings for each other is marvelously done, with everything only being made explicit very late on. Every beat, every development of their relationship rings true, so it is genuinely heartbreaking at the end when of course Tommy is called for his final donation and decides he would rather Kathy doesn't see him in his final stages of sickness and death. Kathy outlives her true love, but with the knowledge that soon she too will be called to give her first donation.